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Guest Post: 3 Lessons Linden Lab Can Learn From LOTRO

Two Nightflowers
Nightflower in Lord of the Rings Online and Second Life

Editor's note: Before "Nightflower" officially joined New World Notes as a regular contributor, she sent this smart essay as a guest post -- opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the management etc. - Hamlet Au

During an extended break from Second Life, Lord of the Rings Online acted as my virtual world methadone program. Leaving the delightfully anarchic culture of SL for the sturctured, purpose-driven community of an MMOG was enough to give me a dizzying case of virtual world whiplash. But in making the switch, I made a shocking discovery -- I made friends, found community, and had a blast in LOTRO far sooner than I ever did in Second Life.

Friends in Middle Earth

The reason? LOTRO has formalized social groups that serve to integrate new players into the game, train them to thrive, and introduce them to friends for the journey. These groups are commonly known as guilds in virtually every MMOG available today. They are nearly universal to the genre because they work, leveraging the power of the player base to build community.

No, I'm not advocating that Linden Lab institute a formal guild system - because they don't need to. The Second Life social landscape is already a beautiful mosaic of tight-knit tribes and affinity groups. The problem is that is that these vibrant communities are completely invisible to those who are new to our world. To overcome that challenge, I believe there are three ways that Linden Lab could learn from the the ways MMOGs leverage guilds to improve the new user experience - without altering the fundamental character of the world we love so well:

1. Establish Paths to Communities

While the central activity for MMOG gamers is killing critters, players also flock to a wide range of specialized activities around which guilds often form, like playing music or exploring the world. The myriad options that SL offers utterly dwarf those available in any other MMOG - yet therein lies the irony. Second Life loses new signups every day because they can’t find things to do or people with whom they can connect. If the Lab could quickly connect new users with vibrant affinity groups, they would largely relieve themselves of the task of orientation.

Here's an example. Only a couple of days after returning to SL, a dear friend turned me on to the strangely addictive pursuit of breeding Petable Turtles. But after getting me started, my mentor promptly went on vacation, leaving me utterly clueless. Fortunately, as a long-time SL resident, I knew just what to do. I joined the largest turtle-related groups, asked for advice, and became part of the community. Not only did I get all the help I needed, but I quickly made serveral new friends.

Lyin with Turtles

A new resident coming from FarmVille might find a perfect home in the turtle community - but only if she knows it exists and knows how to access the tribe. By establishing a simple mechanism for new players to see what kinds of communities are available, the Lab could immediately connect them with compelling reasons for building a Second Life.

2. Motivate Ongoing Recruitment

Here's a major stumbling block - many SL communities have no desire reach out to new players and invest the time needed to integrate them into their culture. While few groups wouldn't want a wider, more vibrant community, they just don't want it bad enough to take the relatively drastic step of actively recruiting new members. Given the labor involved, many SL communities simply aren't sufficiently motivated to recruit.

Nights Lil Friend

Likewise, when a guild recruits a new player, they are taking on a huge chore - basically teaching them how to play the game. But realizing that guilds are their most effective community building tool, MMOGs aren’t afraid to lay on the love to keep them motivated to grow. Special housing, pretty horses, and group chat that works are just a few of the incentives MMOGs offer guilds in recognition of their value.

So what would it take for The Lab to motivate insular SL communities to actively reach out to new residents? Really, the more important question is "what would it be worth?" What would it be worth to have the most creative, dynamic, eclectic band of communities in the history of the internet take an active role in the SL new user experience? Would it be worth land? Linden Dollars? Group chat that works? It would be worth all that and more.

3. Recognize Thriving Tribes

In MMOGs, guild membership is a matter of pride. Being part of a guild is a statement about who you are and what you value in the game. To their credit, MMOGs do whatever they can to advance this attitude of pride and ownership through formal recognition, both ingame an on the web.

So what would that look like in Second Life? Well, adding a "communities" feature to the HOME tab in the viewer, or doing feature stories on vibrant user groups in the new newsletter would be a start. But the real work that the Lab needs to undertake is a true paradigm shift, in which they realize that the cantankerous user groups constantly screaming to be heard are actually their greatest asset. Against the emergence of so many competing 3D social platforms, the only thing that sets SL apart is its dedicated userbase. Until the Lab actively and publicly embraces not only content creators and fashionistas, but the Steampunks, the Goreans, the Nekos, and every community in between, the greatest resource they could bring to bear against the new user experience will remain untapped.

I started off by saying that I had fun and found community faster in LOTRO than I did in the world that Rosedale built. But lest anyone misunderstand, I need to close by saying that the little slice of home I've carved out in Second Life is infinitely more satisfying. And for me, it has all been about community... the same kind of community virtually every new signup is hoping to find.

If we must look to the land of hobbits to learn how to bring more people into our tribe, so be it.

* * *

Mixed Reality Nightflower

About the author

Nightflower is currently dividing her time between writing, raising virtual reptiles, and enjoying the new expansion just released for Lord of the Rings Online. You can read more at her blog, NightLight. Contact her on Twitter @nightflowerSL, and via e-mail at nightflowerblossoming@gmail.com.

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Wizard Gynoid

wow. great post. very thoughtful and makes sense.

Torin Golding

Great post Nightflower! I also play both LOTRO and SL and agree there are things that are pertinent to both systems.

In SL, I head up a fantastic, international community centered around my ancient Roman estate, ROMA. We've been in existence for four years (several lifetimes in virtual terms!) with over 1400 people in our main group. We are large but don't fit into catch-all categories. We hold regular social events, but there are games and activities in the estate that are always available. We have roleplayers and non roleplayers. We have historical recreation groups who dress in ancient dress, and we have furries and those in modern dress. We incorporate educational aspects and actually have two sims in our estate that are affiliated with an archaeological project at Stanford University.

I think we've got something for almost everyone, but it has always been an uphill struggle to try and reach new players. To try and stand out from all the noise a new resident is confronted with at signup. We were not able to afford a welcome hub when those were an option, as all the cost was laid upon the landownwer in that system. We were an early inclusion in the Spotlight Showcase when that was operating because we IM'd a Linden, but the current Destination Guide seems very closed with no clear path to self inclusion. No way to get on the radar.

It would be great if there was a way communities like ours could be given more tools for visibility by LL.

Sue Baskerville

I believe "No, I'm advocating that Linden Lab institute a formal guild system" should be "No, I'm not advocating that Linden Lab institute a formal guild system".

Left out "not".

Carl Metropolitan

"So what would it take for The Lab to motivate insular SL communities to actively reach out to new residents?"

For a start LL could try not kicking them in the face when they try just that.

Arcadia Codesmith

I favor the EVE Online model. All newbies are dumped by default into a company-MODERATED help channel, and they belong to a default guild. They also have access to a dedicated recruitment channel and they can leave the newbie 'hood and switch to a player-run guild whenever they're ready... or permanently hang out in the newbie guild and assist newer players.

Continuous moderation of the help channel by an official company rep is vital in keeping the riff-raff at bay.

Adric Antfarm

The less Linden is involved in groups and affairs of the residents, the better. Fix the problems, don't act as a social director.

What you advocate would lead to some groups being oh so more special than others since Linden would have "criteria" on who gets to take part.

What if a group doesn't want someone for whatever reason? Does being on the list mean you lose that freedom?

Vivienne Daguerre

This is a very well thought out post and I agree completely.

I don't know if LL will ever happily embrace the Goreans. I think we have a bad rep for politically incorrect relationships between sexes and overt sexual behaviour which they are very, very afraid of. I was looking at their destination guide, and under the role play section Goreans are not mentioned, but Roman/Greek era role play is, complete with slavery. Furry role play can be very sexual as well at times.

I wonder what we can do to help newbies more without relying on LL to provide all the answers? Should I spend time looking for newbies a few times per week wearing a big sign, "Ask me for help. Ask me about Gorean role play." Of course after they bring in the 16 to 18 year olds from the teen grid, I would have to try to avoid recruiting the youngsters.

Gor is not for everyone, but neither is neko, steampunk or Western role play. However, our Gorean community needs a regular influx of new blood to survive, and most of us will take the time to help new people learn about SL and about Gorean role play.

To those who don't know, sexual role play is not mandatory on Gor and many do not participate in that kind of role play. Gor has much more to offer than sex. You will find more sex going on at the dance clubs. Most of my role play is as a merchant/trader travelling Gor wheeling, dealing, smuggling, and "creatively acquiring" goods for my customers.

Ignatius Onomatopoeia

@Vivienne, I'd advise your fellow Goreans, and anyone with any sex (or simply domination) in their roleplay to steer clear of anywhere that newcomers arrive, once the age for SL membership drops. I'd advise putting age verification in place for every sim that might include sex as an integral part of RP.

Here's why: You'd be target for prosecution in my state and many others if, say, you ended up with a few underage kajirae whose parents found out. Unless you are a parent or teacher in the US these days, you have *no* idea how hyper-involved parents can be.

For that reason alone, LL will never be able to promote any RP that could include sex, and that means they'll have to drop the "Become a vampire" ads too.

I thought, at first, that the merging of the Teen and Main grids would be a good thing. Now, given this discussion, I'm not so sure.

Eli Schlegal

This what Mentors were/could have been/should have been doing. Not only helping people to learn the UI but also helping people to connect to communities.

Arcadia Codesmith

You have to have a single, company-managed help resource instantly available to all new users. Otherwise SL becomes a victim of the paralysis of choice -- too many options without any meaningful way to evaluate them.

It would be nice if they also managed a separate group for verified adults expressing an interest in adult content, but given the climate, that might need to be an unofficial channel.

But paid employees are preferable to volunteers for these positions, not because volunteers are any less knowlegeable or dedicated, but because employees can be held accountable for their actions, and can't launch a class-action suit for providing unpaid labor to your world/game.

And while I've got no issue with Goreans doing their own thing, and being listed with other mature/adult RP groups, it should be noted that Norman wasn't "politically incorrect". He was just incorrect.

Ron Overdrive

As a long time resident (5+ years) I have a bit more insight of what it was like in the past. Back in the day SL was significantly more Community based. As time went by and the grid expanded, there was a shift in LL's mentality from Community to Commercial and existing communities got spread thin so nothing is as tight nit as it used to be. Ah to good ole days. :P

Udge Watanabe

Yeah, what Eli said. I spent all my time as a mentor on the non-pubic OI's and HI's, distributing landmarks and notecards and advice to the newborns. I'll never understand why the mentor program was killed.

John Lopez

I'm not intolerant of much (libertarian minus the interest in drugs I guess) but Gor just raises my hackles. The planet has enough abuse of the disenfranchised and powerless that I just can't get behind the role-play thereof. Gor in the welcome areas and promoted? Ick.

Why contributed to the *ideals* behind http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_day_slavery ? (Yeah, yeah, it is all consensual and "play". Still, it as appealing to me as roleplaying a sexually deviant serial killer. Perhaps because that is much of what Gor is.)

And I agree, once the 16 and 17 years are on the main grid, Gor is going to be a *very* dangerous game. I don't look forward to Second Life being tarred and feathered in the media for "luring young children into virtual sexual slavery".

Sigh.

Ignatius Onomatopoeia

@John, well, a Libertarian and Radical-Enviro Academic can agree on at least one thing, your post demonstrates.

To remain in SL without law-suits, I'm betting that Goreans had best rebrand all their land as adult. They, and all with sexually explicit RP, will have to be uber-careful once the youngsters can be on the grid w/o violating TOS.

Our Tea-Party, conservative Christian Attorney General in VA will be among those salivating to put an end to "smut on the Internet," and Linden Lab could hand men like him, eager to build a portfolio for national office, the opportunity on a silver platter.

Will be interesting and stomach-churning to watch, as we get another wave of drive-by reporting from mainstream media. And is that Congressman who hated SL still about?

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